Why Listening Is Key to Employee Conversations

April 2021
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Have you ever had a conversation with someone who spent most of the time talking about themselves, showing little or no interest in getting to know you? It’s a pretty immediate turnoff.

The example illustrates a point that is just as applicable to businesses as it is to individual relationships. Companies often fall into the trap of being the “let’s talk about me” person in conversations with their employees.

One of the keys to a successful communications campaign is understanding your audience so you can speak directly to them or, even better, with them. When communicating with your employees, it can be tempting to segment messaging exclusively based on department or level. I’m not saying this kind of high-level segmentation isn’t valuable — it’s a fine place to start. But it’s important to understand people are more than just their job function. Every company is ultimately made up of individuals, each with their own needs, interests and emotions. 

What’s more, people are complex. They interpret messages and perceive change through the lens of their own personal experience and perspective. Putting people at the center of business requires that you understand them, which is why I believe a key to effective internal communications isn’t communication at all — it’s listening

Listening to all employee voices

After a divisive year that elicited deeply held opinions among those across the ideological spectrum, navigating workplace dynamics has become even more precarious. With strong viewpoints swimming just below the surface of your conversations, inviting opinions about anything other than the Oxford comma can feel daunting. Even dangerous. 

Connection between humans — especially those with differing perspectives — has become understandably strained. But as communicators and leaders, we must set the example and listen for the sake of understanding our people with respectful curiosity and consideration.

As a focus-group facilitator, I’m trained to be curious and objective. Don’t get me wrong, I am acutely aware of my own perspective and bias. I’ve had to practice remaining open-minded in the face of opinions or experiences that differ from my own. It isn’t always easy, but doing so challenges me to dig deeper and consider the context and reasoning behind perspectives I would not have otherwise understood. 

By taking the opportunity to listen, I gain greater depth of insight that informs and enhances communications. But more important, I am better able to develop an effective management approach for a complex team. 

Using tactical tips for effective listening

At our company and with clients, we’ve found that a multifaceted approach to listening and seeking feedback provides the most helpful results. Monitoring and assessing what people are reading and responding to through data analysis — tracking things like open-rates and number of intranet users — is helpful, but we recommend digging even deeper.

Our process usually starts with an employee survey. This allows us to determine a baseline and identify high-level trends to guide conversations. Armed with survey results, we then facilitate smaller focus groups, having candid conversations that allow us to dig deeper and seek greater context. 

However, sometimes the best way to listen to your employees is to ask someone else to do it for you. The best advice I can give regarding focus groups is to leverage an objective, third-party facilitator. 

Often, companies conduct skip-level conversations in an attempt to create space for honest feedback; but inevitably, employees remain filtered when talking with company leaders, whether their direct supervisor or not. Working with a third party creates a safe space for honest conversations, as employees feel empowered to speak openly without fear of repercussions.

Armed with honest feedback and a broad (potentially overwhelming) range of perspectives, how then do you reconcile such diverse thought in a way that brings a team together around a shared purpose?

Bringing people together

When faced with such varied perspectives, you cannot please everyone. The good news is that, often, success simply requires demonstrating with transparency how you thoughtfully considered and acted on the feedback received. 

That brings us back to communication — sharing with people what you heard and explaining how it impacts what’s been decided. Sometimes that means discussing why a decision was made to those who disagree with it. These can be difficult conversations, and they require authenticity, vulnerability and the same level of candor that employees demonstrated when sharing feedback in the first place. 

Not only does this exemplify and set the standard for open and respectful communication, it also  signals to your team that their input matters. There will always be diversity of thought and opinion — what makes the difference is how you address it.

Equipped with a realistic picture of what your employees think and how they feel, leaders can speak directly to each group, significantly increasing the likelihood of successful outcomes, creating true advocates for your company whose commitment goes beyond the boundaries of their desks.

Now that they’ve been a participant in the conversation, and not a victim of it, they’ll be more likely to listen the next time you have something to say. 

Return to Current Issue Internal Comms for Employees Near and Far | April 2021
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